Monday, 1 August 2016

Chapter Eleven

The collected volumes of  The Dead London Chronicles are now available FREE at Smashwords, or your favourite ebook retailer! 

 On her return to where Alice lay, sleeping serenely, Mary found herself met by the doctor who looked in turn a little more satisfied with the progress of his patient. In fact, so pleased was he by Alice's peaceful slumber that he told, no, politely commanded Mary that the day was hers to use as she saw fit, that her mistress would sleep, he would watch her and the maid who cared for her mistress every waking moment must take some time to just be. No amount of arguing would shift him from his path and she found herself kindly but definitely dismissed for the day, in a house full of vampires, duchesses and half dressed footmen. 

She thought again of the footman's suggestion that she go exploring, that she should venture out into the wilderness beyond. It did indeed look tempting, now that the danger with her mistress was past, the snow falling lightly as, wrapped tightly in her cloak, she set out into the white. 

Wherever those so-called hellfire caves were if they were there at all, Mary could hardly imagine beneath the still-falling slow but she was a creature of instinct, and a little whiteout brought no fear to her. She would find her way back here blindfolded if she needed to, and the air was fresh, the sky blue despite the snowfall. Indeed, once out of the baffling house, her good senses returned immediately, and she strode with purpose, not feeling the cold greatly as she made her way away from the house. 

There were no prints in the freshly fallen snow, no suggestion that anyone but she trod here and she felt wonderfully intrepid as she went, wishing that the footman with the jet black eyes could see her now. What he was she couldn't know, but he was neither vampire nor wolf nor, she suspected, quite human, with those eyes and that knack of being there. 

In fact, so intent was she on not thinking of him that she stopped suddenly at a sight in the snow, a single hoof print and then, a few feet further on another and another, into the trees ahead. Mary turned and looked behind her yet there were only her own shoe prints, this one-hoofed creature, if creature it was, seemingly appearing from nowhere. 

Perhaps the devil had also fancied a walk that morning. 

Mary refused to feel nervous, quite certain that if she were to meet him she would simply smile and walk on, though why only one print was showing was beyond her. What, after all, would he look like if not a storybook monster, and London was full of those these days. Anyway, if he hopped about on one leg, he was hardly likely to be game for the chase. 

She followed the prints into the trees, glad despite herself that the foliage was not thick, watching as they tramped up trunk and down bark, along boughs and onto the ground. If nothing else, he was nimble. She paused briefly, thinking she saw something, but it was only a deer, stopping to regard her before breaking cover and running across her path and away. 

The devil was no deer, of that she was sure, though the animal could no doubt give the best a run for their money. And then, somewhere, she heard that whistle. The naked - no - near naked footman who she had left in the kitchen with his tea and cake, was somewhere in these trees, though he was no one- hoofed devil, that much she knew. 

"I know," she called upwards, "That you're up there!" 

"Did you follow my hoof print?" His reply came from above, playful and mischievous. 

"I followed something," she responded cautiously, "But I don't believe for one minute--" 

High in the trees above came the sound of movement and then she saw him, climbing swiftly down to occupy a heavy bough just ten feet or so above her head, no longer half naked but now clad in a simple black cloak, boots on his usually bare feet. The footman greeted her with a smile and asked, "Climb up?" 

"What are you doing up there?" she peered up, "What game are you playing?" 

"I am playing the game called being in the house with all those dukes is boring, so let's go and climb a tree," was his response. "Did you get a day off?" 

"I did," she frowned, "Were you listening in?" 

"Not much happens that I don't know about." He scooped up some snow, sprinkling it onto her head. "Can you climb trees?" 

"I can," Mary squinted up, "Give me one good reason why I should?" 

"To prove that a lady's maid isn't all needlework and tiny little cups of tea?" 

"There is nothing tiny," she was already shrugging off the cloak, knowing she would not be able to climb with it, "About my cups." 

"Madam, I am too much of a gentleman to comment!" 

That did it, and without further comment of her own, Mary reached for the nearest branch, pulling herself upwards with little thought for anything other than proving to this whatever-he-was that she was up to the task. 

"You are like a monkey!" He laughed at the observation, even as he added, "And I take back what I said about lady's maids!" 

"So you should," she told him firmly, climbing up further towards him, "Now tell me about these footprints." 

Quite unexpectedly the footman reached down a hand seized Mary's wrist, lifting her effortlessly the last few feet until she was able to settle on the bough beside him, looking out over the wood and through the snow to the opulent house beyond. With a frown he looked down to the now unsullied ground, where only Mary's prints remained and asked, "Hoof prints?" 

"Right there--" she pointed, exclaiming, "How did you do that?" 

That he was not anything approaching normal was now more than clear, and she regarded him closely, searching for the answer. 

"Maybe," he held out his hand, a richly appointed silver brandy flask somehow held in the palm, "I am magic." 

"What," she held her breath then, "Are you?" 

"The man," he smiled, "Who looks after the household." 

He had, she realised, been telling her all along, the key to his identity in those oft repeated words that she had not understood until now. "You're--" 

"Sitting up a tree?" 

"You're the Devil!” 

In reply his eyes opened wide, comically so, and he whispered, "Then where are my horns?" 

"You--" Mary rounded on him furiously then, "How could you play with me like that!” 

"Have some brandy and smile; you are far prettier when you smile." 

At that she lunged at him furiously, telling him hotly, "I am no man's sport, Sir, whether he be the devil himself!" 

Mishael de Chastelaine, the supposed devil himself, reacted too late to save himself from falling clean from the tree, though his arm snatched around Mary's waist and took her with him as he fell, the time seeming to slow in the moments before they hit the snow-covered ground. The breath was knocked from her and it took a moment to realise that she was lying fully atop the master of not only the house but, if rumours were to be believed, the entire underworld as well. He lifted his head, that ridiculously, stupidly handsome head, and pecked a kiss to her lips as though he had every right to do so, as though he were not infuriating, insufferable and not at all as handsome as he thought he was.

"Why," she demanded after a moment to gather herself, "did you just do that?" 

"Because you make me feel very devilish," he grinned, "Wolfish one might say." 

That was when her hand snapped out, catching him across the face before she had even fully registered her intention. "Well!" The exclamation was ridiculous in its shock, and he fell back onto the snow, eyes closed. "Oh bloody hell!"

Only I, Mary realised, could knock out the devil. And be kissed by the devil, or the footman or whatever he was. The man who looks after the household... Of course he was the devil, because life had ceased to be normal when they walked into his house, the house where it snowed in summer and the walls were never where you had left them.

"Wake up," she leaned over him, tapping his face, "For goodness sake, wake up!" That handsome face remained unmoving, slumped against the snow. "Wake up!" The next tap was more of a slap, as she told him, "A maid can't floor the Devil!"

Instead of a reply he gave a long, pained sigh, lips parting slightly, the lips that had been against hers, however briefly, the memory distracting her for a moment before she murmured more gently, "I didn't mean -- please wake up."

"You have murdered me," he whispered, one eye opening. "Killed me dead."

"Murdered the Devil?" she raised an eyebrow at that, "I don't think so! Unless," she added, peering closer, "You aren't really the Devil after all...."

"I am!”

"Dead, or the Devil?" 

His reply, as though it was utterly normal, was to peck another kiss to her lips, murmuring softly, "The latter..."

"Then what is the Devil," she found herself drawn to those eyes again, the ones that watched her so closely, "Doing kissing maids?"

"Enjoying himself," Mishael de Chastelaine's voice was smooth as velvet, full of mischief, "You have very kissable lips..."

"And they are not," Mary was, she realised, still lying atop him, "Yours to kiss, sir!"

"Then you kiss me instead?"

"And lose my soul?" She should probably be more scared, but her emotions were currently moving between intrigued and annoyed and back again at rapid speed. 

"Or your heart?"

"That," she fixed him with a look, "Is not for losing." 

“One kiss," Mishael's hand stole into her hair, “Will do you no harm."

"One," she decided, the whole matter best over and done with as she bent closer to press her lips to his. Once there however it was not quite as simple as she had thought to pull away again, his lips soft and enticing beneath hers.

If those lips were to part, Mary assured herself, she would stop him, would end the kiss yet even as she felt them part, coaxing hers to do the same, she remained in the devil's embrace. She lost track of how long they remained that way, the kiss lengthening as she remarked detachedly to herself that kissing the devil was a more pleasurable experience than she would have thought. His hand was soft against her back, tangled in the hair she didn't remember unpinning, the other caressing her waist gently. 

"That," she murmured when she finally had to break for air, "Is not fair."

"Nice is different to fair..."

"I should not," she was suddenly overwhelmingly aware, "Be here with you like this." What her mistress would have to say she could well imagine, what she herself should be thinking should alone be enough to have her scrambling to her feet. 

"You should!" He leapt up, reaching for her hand. "We fit together so well."

"I fit with no one." Mary shook her head, "I need to get back."

"Will we see each other again?" 

"We'll be leaving once the snow clears," she half answered the question, brushing down her dress. "I need to get back to my mistress."

"Can I call on you in London?"

His words were unexpected and she frowned. "Surely the Devil has more important things to do than call on maids?"

In reply, Mishael blushed, that sculptor's idea of handsome taking on a look of bashfulness that she was sure must be anything but genuine. 

"It is not the job that intrigues, it is the lady." The smile that followed that was somehow too guileless and he bowed low, telling Mary,  "You have made me a happy man today, Miss Lambert; it is too rare nowadays."

"Well," she had nothing she could say in face of that, feeling her own cheeks colour and hating the fact, "At least I have been of service." With that she turned, intent upon following her prints back through the snow.

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